KUALA LUMPUR: It is a rip-off that might endanger efforts to stem the unfold of the novel coronavirus.
But Malaysian pharmacist Zeff Tan is aware of how to inform the distinction between actual surgical masks and the counterfeit or sub-quality ones — by utilizing a lighter.
The filter materials of a real three-ply masks is made out of plastics, resembling polythene and polypropylene. Light it up and “because it is made of plastics, instead of producing sparks, they actually melt”, he stated in an illustration.
If it’s made out of paper or a combination of plastic and paper, then there could be “some kind of fire”.
He is sounding the alarm at a time when the issue has come to the fore worldwide. In March, in an operation dubbed Pangea XIII, Interpol led enforcement companies from 90 international locations to scour the Internet for fake medical objects.
In one week, they uncovered round 600 instances of counterfeit surgical masks bought on-line. It led to the seizure of 34,000 fake or sub-standard masks.
One of the international locations engaged in the operation was Malaysia, the place the issue of counterfeits is endemic.
COVID-19 could have given a brand new twist to the difficulty, however fake masks are not the one counterfeits in circulation that might have a well being affect on Malaysians.
Today, counterfeiters are focusing on not solely luxurious manufacturers however a variety of goods, from high-street magnificence merchandise — which may spark pores and skin allergy symptoms — to automotive spare components, with implications for street security.
Even meals is now being faked, both labelled a sure model that didn’t come from that producer, or extra insidiously, the content material of the meals may not be what it’s claimed to be.
In February final 12 months, for instance, Malaysian authorities disposed of RM450,000 (S$147,000) value of fake and unlawful goods — together with meals objects — in Penang, the place there have been practically 100 stories of counterfeit meals objects final 12 months.
Some of the traits are scary due to the merchandise concerned, which the programme Undercover Asia investigates. And the query of how to clear up the issue appears to be like to be a tough one. (Watch the episode right here.)
Malaysia shouldn’t be alone in struggling to maintain fakes from infiltrating its shopper market.
The international commerce in counterfeit and pirated goods has risen steadily, from US$461 billion (S$653 billion) in 2013 to US$509 billion in 2016, in accordance to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Union Intellectual Property Office estimates.
Among probably the most harmful of those merchandise are falsified medicines, of which an rising quantity is being produced and bought in Southeast Asia, reported the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime final 12 months.
Every 12 months, shoppers in the area spend an estimated US$520 million to US$2.6 billion on falsified medicines, which may vary from anti-cancer therapies to medication for infertility and weight reduction.
In Malaysia, fake medicines are typically bought in unregulated shops, resembling roadside stalls, conventional medicinal halls and provision retailers littered throughout the nation, from cities to villages.
Many consumers can’t inform the actual from the fake, because the latter typically masquerades behind authentic manufacturers. This is why Tan needs to educate the general public.
His campaign towards all medical-related fakes began final August, when he found fake Panadol in a sundry store in the Batu Pahat space. The floor of the drugs have been “full of flaws” and stained his fingers with powder.
Fearing that others could purchase the fake product unwittingly, he took to social media to warn of the variations between the fake and the actual Panadol.
After his exposé went viral, GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of the actual product, stated Malaysia was the one nation the place fake Panadol had been reported. Tan’s Facebook web page has since gained practically 10,000 followers.
According to him, there are two sorts of counterfeit medicines. The first sort has no energetic pharmaceutical compound or accommodates the components solely partially.
“If you’re taking counterfeit blood pressure medicine, your blood pressure wouldn’t be well-regulated,” he stated by the use of instance.
“One pill has the compound, one other pill is a placebo. So on someday, your stress is managed; on one other day, it is not managed. You’re risking your life.
Some of those sub-standard medicines could also be legitimately manufactured. But in phrases of high quality management, they both have inadequate energetic components or include impurities. They needs to be discarded however are illegally obtained and bought to sufferers as an alternative.
The second sort of counterfeits are medicines “blended with prohibited substances, resembling steroids, allergy medicines and painkillers”.
Taking them every day normally harms the liver and kidneys and “eventually leads to other types of organ failures”, Tan added. “This will cost your life.”
Shabana Naseer, the National Consumer Complaints Centre’s authorized and coverage division senior supervisor, witnessed the hazards of those fakes when a shopper who was taking oral dietary supplements for 3 months handed out someday.
“She went to hospital, and then she realised that the product she was taking hadn’t undergone our Ministry of Health’s checks … Ever since then, she’s stopped using the medicine,” stated Shabana.
We don’t know what (her) scenario’s going to be in the long run … We simply hope that nothing severe will occur to that individual shopper.
The market share of fake drugs in the nation is 5 per cent, in accordance to a 2013 examine. But it’s the mindset of Malaysians, slightly than the prevalence of fake medication, that worries Tan.
“Most Malaysians are more price-oriented. So whichever sells cheaply, they’d buy that. They don’t have the kind of mindset (that) ‘you’re selling that cheaply … is your medicine reliable?’” he stated.
“Because we’re in a comfort zone, we don’t really have that kind of awareness.”
A spot like Malaysia is a goal vacation spot for fakes as a result of it’s a creating nation, identified Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs senior economist Muhammad Adli Amirullah. In 2018, the median wage was RM2,308.
The counterfeiters are helped by the truth that Malaysia is a nation of cut price hunters. As far again as 2011, a Nielsen Shopper Trends survey discovered that Malaysians have been probably the most price-sensitive customers in the area.
“Most Malaysians are well aware of counterfeit goods. But they tend to still consume the counterfeit goods because of the huge price difference,” stated Adli.
The hurt in that, nonetheless, has been catastrophic for some. Around September 2018, 45 folks died after consuming poisonous alcohol. In May and June final 12 months, at the very least 17 extra joined the dying toll, and one particular person grew to become blind.
All reported related signs, together with various levels of nausea and blurred imaginative and prescient. Many have been pronounced useless throughout the similar day.
Malaysia is the “biggest market” for counterfeit liquor, stated P David Marshel, a municipal councillor in Penang who has spearheaded a motion towards bootleg alcohol for six years now.
“The original (brands) are very expensive … about RM170 to RM150 in the Malaysian market,” he stated. “Some people cannot afford to buy (those bottles). So when they see RM50 or RM30, they buy and drink.”
Such a reduction of 70 to 80 per cent is the telltale signal of fake alcohol, however these consumers “aren’t bothered about the content, whether it’s poisonous or counterfeit”.
“They want to get the cheapest (one), as long as they can drink and get high,” he added.
So what’s in counterfeit liquor that may kill? As little as 30 millilitres or a few shot glass stuffed with methanol, a product that’s launched throughout the fermentation course of of constructing alcohol.
When processed correctly, methanol is boiled off when alcohol is distilled. But with counterfeiters wanting to minimize corners to save prices, the heating course of could also be inadequate or omitted, leaving traces of lethal methanol behind.
WATCH: Why low cost alcohol may kill you — counterfeit liquor in Malaysia (2:30)
When ingested, methanol is transformed into formaldehyde, which is used in embalming fluid, amongst others. The impact is like being embalmed alive.
Every month, Marshel leads a staff to sweep totally different areas of Penang. Their mission is to find retailers that are promoting liquor and not using a licence, bottles with unpaid customs duties and counterfeit alcohol.
In a sting operation one night time, they uncovered a nook store that was promoting bottles of spirits with out the duty-paid sticker, at half the standard worth of RM240.
Once such retailers are recognized, Marshel works with the authorities to revoke their licence and cease the sale of shady alcohol. In this case, nonetheless, it was the fourth time the identical premises had been raided.
The vendor and others like him have continued to function illegally as a result of the RM2,300 nice is a small worth to pay when there’s prepared demand and the earnings are engaging.
Asked whether or not his alcohol was real, the seller stated it was as a result of “nothing happened to (the buyers) after drinking”. He added: “If there’s (a problem), then it’s not okay.”
With enforcement ineffective in preserving moonshine off the cabinets, Marshel and his staff on the Malaysian Anti-Cheap Liquor Movement have lengthy campaigned to ban provision retailers from promoting alcohol, which might pressure shoppers to purchase solely from regulated liquor sellers.
They haven’t succeeded. But he hopes the elevating of the authorized consuming age to 21, efficient from December 2017, is at the very least lowering the variety of folks uncovered to counterfeit alcohol.
GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE
To take away fakes from the cabinets, manufacturers typically have to take issues into their very own arms. They rent somebody like lawyer Brian Law, who specialises in counterfeit crimes.
The regional head of mental property and his staff of legal professionals at Eversheds Harry Elias purchase their purchasers’ merchandise from numerous retailers, generally as typically as each three months, to make sure that all of them are real.
According to him, there are normally two teams of counterfeiters. The smaller one entails “opportunists”, whereas the opposite is “more organised” and targeted on merchandise like medicines and alcoholic drinks, which are “more lucrative”.
It is an area drawback with international implications — the sale of those fakes is likely to be funding the felony underworld. That is what Adli, who has spent the previous three years learning illicit commerce, additionally believes.
“By purchasing counterfeit goods, indirectly, we’re contributing to criminal revenue, which creates a whole set of problems in the world,” he stated.
It is a battle, nonetheless, for the authorities to tamp down counterfeit smuggling — even at Port Klang, Malaysia’s main port and one of many nation’s seven main ports. Some of the 12 million delivery containers arriving right here yearly carry knock-offs.
“The enforcement side still has a lot of room for improvement … when it comes to detecting the counterfeit goods,” stated Adli, who added that there was a danger of corruption.
“If we have automation or technological assistance in determining which product is counterfeit or which product is original, I think this itself can solve quite a lot of problems in the long run.”
Fakes may come from respected e-commerce platforms, regardless of their insurance policies to shield mental property. One on-line retailer, for instance, claims that it makes use of machine studying to mechanically scan its platform to take away suspected counterfeits. Yet the net scams persist.
Owing to the rising reputation of on-line buying, the National Consumer Complaint Centre in Selangor has been responding to extra calls: 60 a day now. One in 5 are about fakes purchased on-line.
“It’s hard for the authorities, and even for us, to monitor all of the market or the players online,” stated Shabana.
As legislation enforcers and counterfeiters proceed to play cat and mouse, nonetheless, one firm is creating a scanner that it thinks is the important thing to outsmarting at the very least some counterfeiters.
The machine, dubbed ProfilePrint, makes use of synthetic intelligence to authenticate merchandise inside seconds. It was developed in collaboration with Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the National University of Singapore.
It has been efficiently examined on tea, magnificence merchandise and face masks. “All you need is about four to five grammes of the product … and our machine would be able to identify the molecular signature,” stated ProfilePrint founder Alan Lai.
“So when we scan a suspected sample and the result fails, it tells us that the molecules in the sample do not match exactly with the molecules in the true source.”
He got here up with the machine in 2017 “to help both producers and consumers to have more trust in the food that we consume every day”. He is now increasing his database in order that the scanner can authenticate extra merchandise.
With lots of of billions of to be made in the counterfeit commerce, nonetheless, expertise alone shouldn’t be sufficient to put a cease to it.
“To have an effective strategy to fight against counterfeiters, it’s best to think (of) how to break the ecosystems,” stated Law. “To do that, you’ll have to work with the different stakeholders.”
That contains reacting “immediately” to shopper tip-offs, stated Shabana. “What we hear from the consumer is that there’s a slow reaction from the government.”
Political will is required, famous Adli, together with “a whole set of ministries that work very hard to ensure that there’s near zero counterfeit goods in Malaysia”.
“If the people — if teachers — educate the children well enough in the next 10 to 20 years, I’d say the demand will somehow lessen compared to today,” he added.
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia right here.